“That Hour,” a photograph by Peter Ralston, shows Andrew and Betsy Wyeth. Betsy Wyeth died Tuesday at age 98. Peter Ralston, Ralston Gallery

Betsy Wyeth, the art-family matriarch who died Tuesday at age 98 in Pennsylvania, was credited as her husband’s muse and model, but she did far more than simply inspire Andrew Wyeth to make great paintings.

From the day they met in 1939, when 17-year-old Betsy took Andy to see the Olson House in Cushing, she introduced him to the places that would become most important to him and created magnificent environments for him to paint by restoring buildings, preserving land and making everything around her authentic and beautiful.

“Andy Wyeth never would have become Andrew Wyeth without her,” said longtime family friend and photographer Peter Ralston of Rockport, who grew up across the street from the Wyeths in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and followed them to Maine. “She created the worlds in which they lived. And these worlds weren’t just some Colonial Williamsburg wannabes. Andy had a vision for a painting and would go at it with pencil and paper and egg tempura and watercolor. Betsy’s media were bulldozers, skidders and contractors. She was always the architect, and her creations were every bit as brilliant and enduring as Andy’s.”

Her son, the painter Jamie Wyeth, agreed. “She was an amazing partner with my father, and she should have had her signature next to his on many of his paintings, including ‘Christina’s World,’ ” he said Wednesday.

Betsy Wyeth Photo by Peter Ralston

Betsy Wyeth was also her husband’s toughest critic, who often named his paintings and learned to express her strong opinion about his art. Jamie Wyeth recounted a story about a painting Andrew Wyeth did early in his career, of his neighbor Walt Anderson walking away, back turned, in a tall field. Wyeth showed the painting to his father, N.C. Wyeth, who told his son to put a gun in the subject’s arm and a couple of hunting dogs in the scene.

“When he left, Betsy told him, ‘Don’t listen to him, he’s wrong,’ ” Jamie Wyeth said. “The father, N.C., was worried that his son wouldn’t be able to sell a painting like that, but he completely missed what his son was doing, and Betsy, at that young age, realized what he was doing – a lone figure walking away from you.”

That painting became “Turkey Pond,” a 1944 egg tempera that served as precedent for “Christina’s World” four years later.

The Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford announced the death of Betsy Wyeth Tuesday, after a long illness, calling her “a visionary in the worlds of art and architecture.” In addition to serving as her husband’s muse, she was also his business manager and chief archivist. She was born Sept. 26, 1921, and raised in East Aurora, New York, the daughter of Merle and Elizabeth James. She met Wyeth in Cushing, where her family had a farm, in the summer of 1939 and married him a week later.

They remained deeply associated with Maine, with roots in the coastal communities of Cushing, Port Clyde and Tenants Harbor. She purchased and helped preserve Southern, Benner and Allen islands, which figure prominently in Andrew Wyeth’s art, and she played a key role in the foundation of the Island Institute in Rockland.

The Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland remembered Wyeth on Wednesday as “a dear friend.” The museum’s relationship with the Wyeths dates to 1944, when it purchased six paintings by the little-known painter from the Macbeth Gallery in New York. “Mrs. Wyeth has been a supporter of the museum throughout the Farnsworth’s public existence. She will be greatly missed,” museum director Christopher Brownawell said in a statement. “Her love of the midcoast was felt far beyond the reaches of the art world. Her generosity extended to the island residents, the fisherman, and the people of Maine.”

Christopher Crosman, former director at the Farnsworth, said Wyeth influenced her husband with her sense of visual clarity, which she learned from her father, a rotogravure editor at a Buffalo newspaper. As a teenager, she learned to crop images and “get straight to the point with both subtle and emphatic clarity,” a characteristic that critics later identified as Wyeth’s “camera eye.”

“He got that from Betsy,” Crosman wrote in an email that he sent Wednesday to Wyeth’s sons, Jamie and Nicholas, and shared with the Press Herald. “The sum of her visual intelligence, learned from an early age, deeply affected the early and later development of Andrew’s art.”

In his email, Crosman also told Wyeth’s sons that their mother’s love of Maine was deep and full of impact, and recounted a dedication of a dock she built to accommodate long-feuding local lobstermen from competing fishing villages.

“But what struck us on the dock was the joy, unfettered and absolute, something few outside the immediate family would ever witness,” Crosman wrote. “She was back at the moment when Andy took her in his arms as a teenager at a dance in Rockland.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.